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Marathon Swimming to Bora Bora

Have you ever thought that climbing Everest was the greatest test of human endurance? Well, consider this, since Hillary climbed Everest in 1953 almost 5000 others have done so.

Since Webb first swam the English Channel in 1875, only around 1000 have managed to complete the task. Indeed only 1 in 10 of those who try to succeed!

This is a story of ultra-performance interwoven with adventure, the power of the human spirit, courage & determination, mental preparation and faith.

Ismael Patu-Huukena left his native Nuku Hiva in Te Fenua Enata (The Land Of Men, the Marquesas Islands) in his early twenties following his wife who had headed to France for her studies.

It was a particularly difficult departure as they left behind their infant daughter. Whilst his wife studied, Ismael worked as a security agent in Bayonne.


For a Polynesian the fenua (land) is their mother and they are inalienable from her & for Ismael the urge to return home became too strong. After almost 20 years away he would spend 1.5 years building a va’a (traditional Polynesian outrigger canoe) with friends.

His aim was to return home by the traditional means of his people. It would be a journey of some 22,738 km from France, via Spain, Portugal, Venezuela, Colombia and the Galapagos Islands.

He would do it in a va’a he would name Te Hono E Hakoe Te Mikeo (Peace & Pardon). Ismael, then 41 years of age, departed on his epic journey in April 2013.


Experienced mariners would talk of the venture & in particular of the craft’s ability to be able to handle inevitable headwinds on the journey. Their concerns would prove well-founded & Ismael would not pass Portugal.

Determined to complete his journey and to realize his dream Ismael came to Tahiti looking to better fund his project. As a means of paying respect to the ocean, of ‘paying his debt’ to the ocean, to honor his ancestors and to raise awareness of the need to protect the ocean’s mammals, he decided to embark upon a number of massive ocean swims.

Ismael hoped that such challenges would increase interest in his project through a better media profile, thereby enabling him to more easily raise funds to allow him to complete his voyage home.

Earlier this year Ismael swam from Tautira to Mahina. More recently, he swam from Tahiti to Moorea. On the eve of the start of the 2014 Hawaiki’nui Va’a Race, he has just swum the complete Hawaiki’nui course over the past 6 days.

He did it by swimming from Huahine to Raiatea (45km), then Raiatea to Tahaa (26km) & finally Tahaa to Bora Bora (58km)! He will now rest in Bora Bora for a week before continuing his swim with Maupiti, his next stop!  Remember this man was not designed to swim a 100m let alone 100’s of kms. Swimming distances such as these are more than a test of endurance they are the reflection of real skill.

Even for someone with a comprehensive background in swimming, these represent mammoth tasks.

For someone who has no background in swimming, the performances are absolutely extraordinary. To give readers an idea of the difficulty involved, consider the following. With the introduction of Marathon Swimming in the 2008 Olympics FINA was requested to determine a swimming distance that would reasonably equate to the marathon (42,195km).

The distance settled on was 10 km because the best average duration to complete this distance swimming – 2:10hrs – was almost equal of the best average 2:05hrs taken to run the 42,195 km of a marathon.

Olympic marathons are completed in around 2hrs; Ismael swims 9 hours per day; the time taken to complete the fastest Hawaiki’nui ever paddled was 9:20:51, around the same amount of time Ismael swims daily.

Some shots of Ismael’s arrival today at the world-renowned Matira Beach, starting with Matira ready to welcome Ismael despite the overcast & often wet day. He’s actually there swimming alongside his support boat, which looks like a speck of Hotel Bora Bora.


A reception committee was on-hand ready to welcome the weary swimmer to Bora, including one who sounded the pu the traditional Tahitian way for centuries indicating a great event was in progress.


Ismael actually swims with a mask & flippers, which he removed just before his arrival beachside:


Ismael swims for around 9 hours per day accompanied by a support boat used in the interest of security in case he should suffer from severe cramping or cold. In a massive understatement, he says it’s hard and he often contemplates stopping but keeps going relying on God for his strength.

He talks of the fear he has whilst swimming and how he draws upon his faith in God to safely proceed. Physical & in particular mental preparation are key elements in his ability to complete such Herculean tasks.


The skipper of the support vessel which accompanied Ismael throughout his epic journey could not wait to join Ismael in celebration in the enticing waters of Matira.


A happy & relieved Ismael beachside after the multi marathon (technically 13 on end since Huahine 6 days ago!), joking with his accompanier and amidst stunned supporters:


At this time of the year in the Leeward Islands of French Polynesia, the maraamu (southerly wind) blows consistently from the south. It seems that Ismael has learned from his incompleted va’a journey that he would be swimming this time with the wind current & swell behind him.

The swell in fact from Tahaa to Bora Bora was so strong it could easily have taken him around the east rather than the planned west coast of Bora Bora.


I spoke to Ismael upon his arrival at the sensational Matira Beach on Bora Bora. He told me that (as with the paddlers) the most difficult leg was the shortest leg.

The swim is unassisted by currents or swell in the still and alluring waters of the striking lagoon shared by Raiatea & Tahaa.


Ismael has always seen plenty of sharks on his journey but is unworried as in Tahitian culture sharks are reincarnations of their Polynesian ancestors.

There their to protect their descendants (a factor that clearly plays a role in the Tahitian’s uncanny ability to play & swim with sharks without being attacked). 

Ismael also swam with his share of turtles who carry the problems of the world on their backs. The reception reserved for Ismael upon reaching Teavanui Pass in Bora Bora was unforgettable.

A huge whale breached out of the water right alongside Ismael as he reached the pass before diving and with a massive slap of its tail, cruising straight past Ismael.

Let me finish this report with a photo showing the whale tattooed on the left side of Ismael’s neck.


Start swimming now. You can succeed in distance swimming, young or old, irrespective of your athletic ability, and all you need is to be a problem-solver and believe you can do it.